Grad school has always sucked: “I am sorry to be so discouraging, but the truth requires it”

This is the start of a new series in the history of anthropology where I will document the way that grad school in anthropology has always sucked, there have never been jobs, and it is crazy to expect to make a living off of it. The reason is not neoliberalism, Obama, or anything else — or at least, these are not the only reasons grad school in anthropology has sucked. It is important to understand that wide variety of reasons that grad school has sucked, and the diverse methods by which people have grappled with this fact.

But my point here is not to produce another piece of quit lit. Rather, I want to add some historical depth to our sense of the chronic problems that academic anthropologists face. Anthropology, perhaps more than any other social science, has been deeply affected by the baby boom. Even today, we still live in a world where senior professors imagine there are as many job openings now as there were in 1965. We need a more expansive imagination of the challenges anthropologists have faced over the years. And, most importantly, we need to remember that there are many successful, happy survivors. 

I open this series with a selection from Cannibalism Is an Acquired Taste, a biography of Omer Stewart pieced together from his letters and interviews with him over the years. The book is far, far more delightful than I had thought it would be. Stewart was a blue collar country kid from Utah who created the anthropology department at the University of Colorado Boulder, fought for Indian rights to use peyote in religious ceremony, and won the Malinowski Award of the Society for Applied Anthropology to boot. I really recommend the book — it’s a gem.

At any rate, Stewart decided that he wanted to be an anthropologist after taking courses with Julian Steward in the early 1930s. Stewart was not a big fan of Steward, but loved the work. So in 1933 he wrote to Alfred Kroeber about the possibility of doing a Ph.D. at Berkeley. Kroeber’s response is a model of transparency that anticipated Karen Kelsky’s great work by almost half a century. Here is what he wrote:

Dear Mr. Stewart:
I enclose a statement which I have drawn up to meet inquiries like yours. If after reading it you still want to persist, I think we should get farthest if you would first tell me why.
I may add that you would have practically no chance of looking forward to any support, at least during your first year. All that the University has is a limited number of open fellowships, for which hundreds of people apply, most of them with from one to three years of graduate work. The Department has one teaching fellowship and a few small readerships on an hourly basis, but you will realize that with fifteen graduate students and more than that number of undergraduate majors here, the chance of any outsider securing these small pickings must necessarily be about nil in competition with the people who have ad the specific courses in which the readerships are allotted.

I am sorry to be so discouraging, but the truth seems to require it.

Sincerely yours,
A.L. Kroeber

Along with this letter was another form letter that, apparently, Kroeber sent to all prospies:

Study for a Career in Anthropology

Since the depression there has been a great increase in the number of people considering a career in anthropology. The following are some points that bear on this possibility.

At the close of 1932 there are absolutely no jobs open to newcomers, and a number of men of established repute and career have had their positions abolished. At the six principal universities giving thorough training in anthropology, there are at present at least one hundred students actually candidates for the Ph.D. or engaged in graduate studies preliminary to becoming candidates. When the Depression lifts, it is expectable that the renewed or new openings will be followed first by the older men now without a position, and next from these one hundred or so people who will by that time presumably have completed their training. Inasmuch as there were probably not over two hundred positions of any sort in anthropology in the country before the Depression, it is clear that the competition for getting even a foothold in the profession is going to be extremely keen among those who have already begun their preparation. Only the best of luckiest of them can reasonably hope to secure a position.

Anthropology differs from most other University subjects in that it is not taught at all in high school, very rarely in junior college or in fact any kind of college, and not by all major universities even. Cornell and Princeton, for instance, and the Ohio and Indiana State Universities, do not give the subject any representation. The result is two-fold: first, the number of positions is definitely limited; and second, nothing but the full professional training for a Ph.D. is ordinarily of much value for securing a university position. An M.A. is ordinarily without practical value. The few research institutions and larger museums which maintain anthropologists on their staffs make the same requirements as the universities.

There are a good many smaller museums which often contain some anthropological material along with collections in natural history, local history, or art. These sometimes have afforded positions to anthropologists; but many of them are one-man institutions, which call for care and exhibition of specimens, lectures to classes of school children, etc., rather than providing a genuine anthropological career. Also in most cases these museums make no educational requirement beyond perhaps a college degree, so the // positions in them are more often awarded on the basis of some local connection than because of attainment.

A Ph.D. at any first-rate University normally requires three solid years of work after the A.B. If it is necessary for the student to support himself during this period, so that he has only part time available for study, he should reckon on four or five years. At the University of California there is the further requirement that before the student can enter the graduate courses which count toward the doctorate he must have had twelve units of straight anthropology as an undergraduate. Students coming from universities where anthropology is not taught, have therefore to add a semester for making up undergraduate arrears in this respect. In addition they must pass a test showing that they posses an actual reading knowledge of both French and German (no substitutions permitted) before they are eligible to enter graduate courses. This test is one of actual capacity, and is not influenced by consideration of courses taken in these languages.

The above remarks apply primarily to men. On account of the preference which most institutions give to men in filling positions, a woman’s chances are on the average perhaps only one-third as great as those of a man of equal ability.
A.L. Kroeber

Sorry for typos. This is just me typing the text in.

It’s a fascinating document, which mixes transparency (including about sexism), degree requirements, and a come-hither are-you-the-chosen-one kind of feel. One thing is for sure: Time to degree has lengthened.

The important thing to take away was that Stewart went to Berkeley anyway. It only cost seventy five bucks a semester, which he could afford while working for a quarter an hour washing dishes in a nearby restaurant. He even passed his German language proficiency test, after hiring Paul Radin as a tutor. And although he couldn’t have known it in 1933, when he was discharged from the army after the war and on the job market, he was walked into an expanding higher ed sector with more money flowing through it than anyone ever thought possible.

Financially, chances are anthropology in 2030 will look more like anthropology in 1930 than anthropology in 1959. So I wouldn’t really encourage you to take out student loans in anticipation of a second golden age. But it is interesting to see how those who came before us dealt with the fact that, in general, grad school has always sucked.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

3 thoughts on “Grad school has always sucked: “I am sorry to be so discouraging, but the truth requires it”

  1. Hmm, was Kroeber under the same pressure from the President of Berkeley to accept droves of Ph.D. students each year? Was there a metric of department performance that integrates “number of Ph.D. students” into its index? Let’s keep in mind that the reason Stewart’s tuition was so cheap was because the Federal Government provided the bulk of the operating expenses of Berkeley at that time; the contribution from tuition or private funding was minimal meaning Universities were not being run like multinational corporations (which they most certainly are today, look at all the “branch” campuses spread out over the world). Grad school may have always sucked, but plucking a historical moment from the midst of the depression to compare with the present situation seems a bit excessive, although makes for a great read. The problem is not just that there is not enough money to go around (which was precisely the problem for everything in the 1930s) but that today there are huge incentives for departments to accept more graduate students than they can possibly manage and certainly more than the economy can provide jobs for. I could careless if you call it “neoliberalism” but if you write a Kroeber-esque letter to a prospective student that was honest about those incentives, then I would say you deserve “mad props”, as does Kroeber when we consider his letter in its appropriate historical context. Maybe you can craft your own letter in your next post, then just send the link to every Stewart-esque “interested in Anthropology” e-mail you receive. I’d certainly forward it along.

  2. I’ll let Rex reply directly to Eddie’s comment, but I will add that I have occasionally made a similar point to the one Rex is building here: there have certainly been changes in the complex system of graduate training and academic job markets, but the outcomes — too many PhDs produced for too few academic positions — have not changed much since Kroeber wrote the letter that Rex quotes. Everyone in my cohort entering the University of Chicago’s anthropology PhD program in the early 1970s got a similar letter, warning us that there was very little grad student funding and too few jobs: there had been a brief era in the 1960s when the flood of baby boomers entering college had created new academic positions in every discipline, including anthropology, but those years were brief and were coming to an end. Eddie asks about pressure to admit large numbers of graduate students. At Chicago in those days, the anthropology entering classes were huge — I recall that the classes entering in the 3 year period 1971-1973 comprised well over 100 anthropology PhD students, each of whom was warned that they were unlikely to get a job, even if they managed to finish. The assumption shared among us students at the time was that the department admitted such large numbers of grad students — and gave virtually no fellowships — to generate income supporting a large and well-paid faculty. When I look at the roster of grad students from those days (yellowing mimeo sheets in an old grad school file I still have), it looks like fewer than half of all of those students finished a PhD, and of those who did, only about half got academic positions. One difference between those cohorts and students finishing PhDs today might be that we did not have adjunct positions to keep our academic dreams alive, if only on life-support, and many of my grad school pals moved quickly into other professional realms. I finished a PhD, but immediately attended law school, following the model of a neighbor in my Hyde Park apartment building who used to joke that she and her History PhD classmates automatically enrolled in the Law School immediately upon defending their dissertations, academic jobs in History being about as scarce as anthropology jobs. I wonder if Eddie can identify a time when there were not “huge incentives for departments to accept more graduate students than they can possibly manage and certainly more than the economy can provide jobs for…” I cannot think of such a time over the past 45 years.

  3. I try not to comment too much on the site, since I am also the comment moderator, so there is a conflict of interest there. I thank Eddie for both his praise and criticism — both of which are merited. Are there really places where administrators are trying to increase the size of grad programs rather than cutting them? That’s a problem I wish I had. In terms of my letter to future students: This series IS my letter.

Comments are closed.